Is the Role of Design to Glorify Corporate Power?
Article by: Stuart Ewen
Pages 191-195


Table of Contents

In this article, Stuart Ewen examines the changing role of design from the field’s birth in the 1870s until now and into the future.

In 1895, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. “prophesized that a new culture was about to take hold” referring to the extensive use mass-produced imagery and design to influence culture. This mass imagery today is powerful as it defines and constructs “corporate and national identity” as well as influence “how we’ve come to understand and envision the meaning of democracy.”[1]

At the turn of the 20th century, designers became critical traditions of the past and the mass produced images. Designers at that time “shared one fundamental belief: that design was alive with social implications.” They wanted to use design to bring about social change and “bring about a utopian future.” However, their dream of using design to bring about change slowly dissolved. As the 21st century rolled in designers viewed “their work as a selling device,” having lost the connections to the beliefs and traditions from which their profession was born.[2]

As the 20th century came to its end, design has been repurposed to create build brands in the public’s mind, make consumers want products, and create a culture of disposability. This culture of disposability has changed the function of design from creating beautiful production into creating merchandise that differs aesthetically from its predecessors, tempting consumers to buy the “new” product. Earnest Elmo Calkins predicted this change in the practice of design as early as the 1930s.[3]
The purpose is to make the customer discontent with his old type of fountain pen, ... or motor car, because it is old-fashioned, out of date....
We no longer wait for things to wear out. We displace them with others that are not more effective but more attractive.


Stuart Ewen’s belief that design has become an “instrument for glorifying corporate power” is valid. Corporations have whole teams dedicated to its image, customizing it to maximize profits in various regions. However there are some designers who are attempting to go back to the roots of the profession and “help bring about utopian future,” but the practice of commercial design overshadows their relatively small numbers.[4]
  1. ^ Citizen Designer, p. 191
  2. ^ Citizen Designer, p. 192
  3. ^ Citizen Designer, p. 193
  4. ^ Citizen Designer, p. 194